By Peter Cunningham

There’s an undeniable truth that people from less affluent backgrounds are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding places at college or university. You can see it in data about student recruitment.

Rich and poor students are separated by more their parents’ earnings – places for students from the lowest rung of the economic ladder are at a premium.

While almost a third of new undergraduate enrolments in the UK in 2016 were from the highest-earning families, only a sixth were from the worst-off families.

Admittedly, acceptance rates for both rich and poor students are on the up. However, places for students from the high-earning backgrounds were increasing almost five times as fast as those for the poorest.

The situation in the US is much different. For one thing, there’s practically no upper limit on what students there can spend on tuition, while in the UK it’s set at £27,000 for undergraduate study. That’s a significant economic barrier.

Recruit older students

But on the positive side, many American universities go out of their way to recruit students who are older and from diverse backgrounds socially, racially and economically as the country’s people have a desire to continually educate and improve themselves at the heart of their psyche.

Some of the big “career” schools – the likes of University of Phoenix, De Vry University, Kaplan University, Grand Canyon University – offer places for students on work-related degrees that particularly appeal to those looking to improve their employability.

A lot of them teach at night-time and their student recruitment drive is more targeted at people who didn’t finish high school or are returning to education, areas where UK universities could perhaps consider reaching out more.

You can understand the concerns of people from less-well-off or deprived backgrounds. They want to learn and get qualifications, but the prospect of going to mainstream university could put them off, such as the fear of not fitting in.

Besides the social barrier between rich and poor students, there are physical barriers for the economically disadvantaged. Perhaps they can’t fit their tuition hours around the work they desperately need to do to survive.

Student recruitment strategy

There are also fears that unscrupulous colleges will gobble up their cash and spit them out without a qualification, as has happened in past scandals. This is where a student recruitment strategy that underlines the benefits of a career school education comes into its own.

Making that positive case is essential because the career schools took a series of big hits during the Obama administration after those scandals.

Their students had access to Title IV funding – they were eligible for federal loans – but a number of colleges were recruiting students from poorer backgrounds with very aggressive marketing techniques and unethical practices, signing them up to a loan and fees they couldn’t afford and investing fee monies into more aggressive marketing.

They had a high drop-out rate but they had their students’ cash regardless. The first round of US austerity saw the law change under the Gainful Employment Act so that career schools could only have a maximum of 90 percent of their student cohort relying on Title IV funding

Gainful employment

The Gainful Employment Act was also designed to weed out education programmes that leave students with unmanageable education loan debt and lead to low quality job prospects.

Critics of the rule argued that gainful employment would ultimately limit opportunity for students, especially those who turn to for-profit schools for flexible schedules as they juggle family, work and school.

The Trump administration halted the gainful employment rule last summer but The U.S. Department of Education distributed proposals for rewriting.

A lot of the large providers saw a drop in enrolments and adverse effects on share prices.

It used to be that if the economy was taking a dive, people would go back to school to make themselves more employable and if the economy was on the up, they would want qualifications to get a pay rise. But people are questioning paying high prices for education.

International student market

Some of these colleges, who have a commitment to serve a sector of society neglected elsewhere, have been really hurting. The value of the international student market to them is increasing, although it can be difficult for foreign students to secure visas.

Regardless of which side of the Atlantic you study on, there’s real value in having a degree that is tailored to the profession you wish to pursue. And that counts no matter your economic background.

While levelling the playing field is an act that goes way beyond the scope of any college or university, there are clear advantages for everyone in recruiting students from more diverse backgrounds.

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